Why does an Englishman write American crime? – Guest Post by R. J. Ellory

We’re currently hosting a weekly series of guest posts by bestselling crime fiction author RJ Ellory. He came through Austin in January while on tour for A Quiet Vendetta. We had the pleasure of having him here at the store, and will now have the pleasure of sharing a new Ellory post with you every Monday for the next seven weeks. If you haven’t checked out his thrillers yet, I highly recommend you pick one up and find out what British readers have been raving about for years.

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Why does an Englishman write American crime?

This is a question I have been asked so many times. Enough times for me to take a long look at it, if for no other reason than to have an answer next time I am asked.

Paul Auster said that becoming a writer was not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don’t choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accepted the fact that you were not fit for anything else, you had to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days, and I concur with his attitude.

I feel the same way about genres. I think the genre chose me, as opposed to my choosing the genre.

The thing that has always fascinated me, and the thing that I believe is the only thing that fascinates authors really, is people. It’s that simple.

Life is people. People are life. Without people there is nothing to talk about, nothing worth saying.

And why American crime? Because such a genre presents me with a broad canvas, and upon that canvas I can write conspiracy, thriller, romance, history, politics, social commentary. I think US crime holds a mirror up to society better than any other genre.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly for me, crime gives me an opportunity to present my ‘people’ with situations that they would never experience in ordinary life. This then gives me the possibility of putting those people through the mill emotionally, and that is where my true interest lies.

So that is where my selection of genre and subject matter comes from, and right from the first book – Candlemoth – I have tried to create real and believable characters and storylines that have this American cultural and political background.  Candlemoth is the story of two boys, one black, one white, who grow up together from the early 50’s in North Carolina. It tracks through that time period – up through the death of JFK and Martin Luther King, through Nixon and Watergate, all the significant political and social events of that time. The story is told in flashback from the perspective of the main protagonist, the white boy now in his 30s, who is on Death Row for the murder of his black friend. The events are recounted to a Catholic priest sent to reconcile the man to his execution, and it deals with the events that brought him there and how he was consigned to such a fate. Ghostheart is told from the perspective of the central female character, a young woman who – by the discoveries she makes in the pages of a book – learns the history of New York gangland and underworld figures in the 50s and 60s, and ultimately how this history relates to herself and her own life.

A Quiet Vendetta is a five hundred-page epic that deals with seventy years of accurate Mafia history throughout New York, LA, Chicago, Miami, Havana, and numerous other cities, and is a story told through the eyes of a young man who becomes a hitman for organised crime. City of Lies is a fast-paced thriller that deals with the lives and crimes of a group of elderly gangsters in Manhattan, and how they use their influence to seduce a younger man into a criminal lifestyle. It concludes with four violent high-powered armed robberies in four different banks in New York City on Christmas Eve.

A Quiet Belief In Angels is the biography of a young boy growing up in Georgia in the 1930 and 40s, and how his entire life is affected by the killing of a number of young girls in his hometown. A Simple Act of Violence is essentially two stories – a series of contemporary killings in Washington DC and how these killings are linked to the undercover actions of the CIA in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Anniversary Man, is the story of a serial killing survivor who works with the Police to uncover the identity of someone perpetrating killings in New York who is copying famous serial killings of the past and carrying them out of the anniversary of their original occurrence. Lastly, Saints of New York, deals with corruption within the Organised Crime Control Bureau, child prostitution, the burdens of one policeman against a system that does anything but acknowledge and reward honesty.

I believe that crime fiction is the most widely-read genre fiction in the world currently. I hope that it will stay that way.  I think – as a genre – it excites, evokes emotion, stimulates mentally, engages, mystifies, perplexes, and pleases readers greatly. We love puzzles. We love the dilemmas of ordinary people presented with extraordinary situations. We love to be challenged. Is that not the index of a healthy and inquisitive mind, and thus a healthily inquisitive society? We want to know more. We want to find out. We want truth and justice. And – if we cannot find it within our culture – we have to be reassured that it is still possible within the pages of a book.

Q&A with RJ ELLORY

Ellory will speak & sign 'A Quiet Vendetta' here at BookPeople on Fri, Jan 27, 7p.

RJ Ellory has earned a great following in his native England writing about the US. In some ways, his books contradict normal crime fiction. They tend to be more sweeping and episodic and, while he takes you through some rather dark and noirish territory, he doesn’t carry the cynicism many crime writers in this country do. At the same time, he captures the American as well as the human experience as well as many of our American writers.

His most recent book to come to the states is A Quiet Vendetta, where the “interrogation” of a mob enforcer, Mr. Perez, in order to find the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is interwoven with the story of Perez’s life, a story that follows the history of the mafia from the 1950s to the present. It strikes a brilliant balance between sweeping and emotional, and tight and intense. Picture the first two Godfather films with the structure of The Usual Suspects.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Mr. Ellory some questions about A Quiet Vendetta and his process


MysteryPeople: A Quiet Vendett a is a sweeping look at the history of the American Mafia in the last half of the 20th century, yet the story relies on two flawed men in a room. Which came first, the era you wanted to explore or the characters?

RJ ELLORY: Well, the emotion always come first, and that may sound like a strange answer! I don’t write a synopsis or an outline for any of my novels, but I do start with a vague idea of the kind of story I want to write, and also a very clear idea of the kind of emotional response I want to evoke in a reader. In the case of A Quiet Vendetta, the intention was to write about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet have the reader be sufficiently seduced by this character to even come to like them by the end of the book. I wanted to write a vast Mafia epic, something that spanned several decades and many cities, and have each city be as much a character as the individuals who drove the story forward. I wanted it be many stories within one story, and I wanted to write one chapter in third person, another in first, and alternate them back and forth. I also wanted to blur the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

MP: How did the character of Perez, a Cuban enforcer for the Italian mob, come about?

RJ: Well, very simply, I wanted to create a character who – no matter how deeply he became involved with the Mafia – would always remain an outsider, simply because he was Cuban. I also wanted to begin Perez’s story during the era of Mafia domination of the Cuban casino business. Therefore it made sense to have Perez be picked up by the Mafia in Havana coincident with Castro overthrowing Batista.

MP: What draws you to using US history as a canvas for many of your books?

RJ: I always read as a child. I was orphaned at seven and sent away to various institutions, and there was always great access to books. When I think of my childhood I think of three things: long-distance running, reading and being hungry! I started with Christie and Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and the classics, and then I found Harper Lee and Truman Capote, Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. I found a tremendous difference between English and US literature, and the rhythm and style of US prose appealed to me so much more. There was a grace and atmosphere and slow-motion style to it that really resonated.

Later on, in my early teens, the kind of TV we watched was predominantly American. I grew up with Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. Additionally, I became – and still am – a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and count amongst my favourite actors such people as Stanwyck, Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart, Bacall, Cagney, Cary Grant and James Stewart. I also loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture presented by the US. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there’s so much colour and life inherent in its society.

I have visited a great number of times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things with which they are familiar. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it is very limiting. I believe you should write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose.

I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. I think that the truly great books are the ones that accomplish both. A classic, for me, is a book that presents you with narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I certainly don’t! I just love to write, and that love, that passion, has been there since my early twenties. First a reader, then a writer. And the range of subjects and issues and cultural differences inherent in the US draws me to it completely.

MP: Many times you use the concept of a story within a story. While at first look it seems limiting, how is it freeing for you?

RJ: Well, the last thing I would ever wish to do is write a series of novels about the same characters. That seems to me to be the most claustrophobic and limiting thing of all. I can write a historical saga, a romance, a political conspiracy, a serial killer story, anything I like, and all within the framework of a crime novel. To write a story within a story just gives me endless scope to write about whatever interests me, and I have often found that if you write about those things that fascinate you, you tend to find that others are fascinated. I think your enthusiasm for the subject matter comes through in your prose. I consider that the very worst novel you could write is the one that you believe others will enjoy, whereas the best novel you could write is the one that you yourself believe you would enjoy reading.

MP: What sets you apart from many of today’s current crime fiction writers is that you offer a deep, believable sense of hope about life and humanity, no matter how dark the tale. As somebody who survived a pretty rough early life, is this something you feel necessary to convey?

RJ: Well, I don’t really consider that I had a rough early life, to be honest. Is it worse to be orphaned and raised without parents, or to be raised in a loving close-knit family environment, only to then witness the aggressive, bitter and violent divorce of your mom and dad when you’re in your teens? I think the former is easier than the latter. As Joni Mitchell said, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’, and if you never had anything to start with, well you can’t miss it! The simple truth is that people fascinate me. The human condition fascinates me. The mind and life as a whole fascinate me. People are crazy and funny and flawed and brilliant and scary and intense and sad and apathetic and lost and focused, and everything else. No-one is perfect. No-one gets it right all the time. I have a pet hate for those crime novels where the lead investigator jumps to wild conclusions and is proven right all the time. Life is not like that. People are not like that. If they’re surviving, then they’re getting things right slightly more than fifty percent of the time. I think I have a deep and believable sense of hope about life and humanity, and I think how I write is just a reflection of my own philosophy. That’s what makes each book unique to each writer. I think that’s what makes a part of each book written somehow autobiographical, not in the story that’s written, but in the philosophy of the characters.

MP: You’ve hit several American regions during different periods. Is there a time and region you’d like to tackle that you haven’t yet?

RJ: I am doing it now! The Deep South (Mississippi), the era (the end of the Nixon administration), and a character who is a Vietnam war veteran. That gives me three areas to write about that I have not written about in detail before, and I am enjoying it thoroughly. This is for a book called The Devil and The River, due for release in the UK in 2013.

MP: You have the sense of sweep and of emotion of a literary or historical fiction writer. What keeps on bringing you back to crime fiction?

RJ: Very simply, my love and fascination for people. The thing with crime, as a genre, is that you can incorporate any sub-genre – history, politics, culture, music, homicide, blackmail, conspiracy, forensics, serial killing, the CIA, FBI, kidnapping, bank robbery, anything at all! – within that story, and it is still a crime novel. Additionally, and more importantly, confronting a regular person with the extraordinary nature of an act of violence or crime gives me opportunity to write across the entire range of human reactions and emotions, and that’s the thing that excites me the most.

As somebody who has hung out with Roger, I can attest we’ve only scratched the surface with him. So join us January 27th at 7pm for his signing and discussion of A Quiet Vendetta over a couple of beers (or wine if you prefer), and other refreshments.

Getting to Know R. J. Ellory

R. J. Ellory will be at BookPeople to speak & sign 'A Quiet Vendetta' on Fri, Jan 27, 7p.

I first came across R. J. Ellory’s work through A Quiet Belief In Angels. It was a dark, wrought, and ultimately beautiful novel following four decades of a man’s life that is entwined with a string of killings that started when he was a young man in Depression-era Georgia. It was like Pat Conroy writing with Thomas Harris lurking behind him. His feel for the region announced the promise of a great Southern crime writer.

I was thrilled to have a chance to be introduced to him a couple of months later at the Indianapolis Bouchercon. I was thrown when he didn’t have a Southern accent, in fact he didn’t even have an American one. It was British. It turned out Roger Jon Ellory became quite a name in his country writing crime fiction about ours.

We got to know one another at the hotel bar, talking about music, books, and Texas. I think that even if I sold books on a blanket outside Waterloo Records he would have wanted to have done a signing, just so he could see Austin. We agreed that he’d come to the store as soon as we could work it out. In return for being his future guide to the city, he sent me his back list of UK titles. It became apparent why Overlook Press brought him over here. He not only knew about the South, but many parts of America and its history, as well.

His approach is an oddly successful meeting of Dickens and Dashielle Hammett. He tends to have a sweeping quality more associated with historical or general fiction writers than most current crime writers. Like Dickens, the sweep never overwhelms the characters or the harshness of their stories. It’s where social and personal issues collide. He often deals with a shadow history hidden behind the pages of what we like to pronounce about ourselves as Americans, such as in A Simple Act Of Violence, which ended up on many 2011 best-of lists.

Many times he achieves a balance between intimate emotion and the down right hard boiled using a story within a story technique. Ghost Heart, a heart breaking noir that I can’t wait to come over here, deals with a New York bookstore owner learning about her father. The father’s life in the Jewish underworld could have been a great piece of hard boiled crime fiction on it’s own, but Ellory delivers suspense and a true sense of love about a daughter trying to know her father through a mysterious stranger who claims to be an old friend. However, this man could be targeting her for revenge. The book is a wonderful example of how Ellory uses a large, exotic canvas, continuing to move his focus to something more intimate: an exchange between two people, the realization of one.

It’s that positive human emotion that sets him apart from the pack. Roger has said his first priority as a writer is emotion. The emotion creeps up on you many times, since he often has cold and brutal beginnings, yet you find yourself consumed by it at the end. I can’t think of another author who takes you through such a dark world and leaves you with such believable hope.

A Quiet Vendetta, the latest to reach our shores, is quintessential Ellory. Ray Hartman, a mob prosecutor, is brought to New Orleans to meet with a Mr Perez. Perez is willing to reveal the location of where the kidnapped daughter of the Louisiana governor is, if Hartman listens to his life story. What a story it is, going from Cuba to all over the US in the last half century when Perez worked as an efficient enforcer for the Mafia. It includes Hoffa, Watergate, the Governor, and Hartman himself. Picture the Godfather saga told through the structure of The Usual Suspects.

RJ Ellory uses the genre and the United States to look at the emotional lives of his characters. It’s about how our actions make up the sum of us and how they can also redefine and redeem us. He’s one of the best American authors, no matter what his accent is.

Get to know Roger like I did, over a few beers or a glass of wine, as he discusses and signs A Quiet Vendetta on Friday January 27th at 7PM. Rumor is he might even pick up a guitar and play a few tunes for us while he’s here.

January ’12 Pick of the Month: ‘A Quiet Vendetta’

RJ Ellory has been an acclaimed author for some time in his native England, and is lesser known here in the states even though he always uses U. S. settings. Starting with the stunning A Quiet Belief In Angels and the shadow history-serial killer hybrid A Simple Act Of Violence, his work has started to come over here. The latest Ellory book to hit our shores, A Quiet Vendetta, solidifies him as one of the top crime writers today.

A Quiet Vendetta is quintessantial Ellory, particularly with it’s use of a story-within-a-story. It begins with the kidnapping of the Louisanna governor’s daughter. The kidnapper requests a sit down with Ray Hartman, a troubled alcoholic Special Investigator for a federal mob prosecutor. When Ray returns to his New Orleans hometown of hard memories, Mr. Perez walks into the police station. He tells Hartman he will reveal the location of the girl after he tells his life story.

And what a tale it is. Perez was born in New Orleans to a violent Cuban father who moves the family back to his homeland right before Castro’s revolution. A chance, brutal occurence brings him into the fold of the Mafia, returning him to the states as one of thier coldest and most efficent enforcers. It’s a sweeping hard boiled saga of violence, friendships, love, and betrayal that sheds light on the Kennedys, Watergate, Jimmy Hoffa and other murky histories. What Ray finds himself stuggling to find out is how the governor, Perez, and he are connected. The answer is only completely revealed at the very end.

It’s the balance of mood, character, and plotting that make this a unique book indicitive of Ellory’s work. At its core it looks at two adversaries who are both looking at their last chance to put their darker nature to rest. Ellory’s ability to take us through their dark world and offer hope for individual humanity makes him a stand out author.

Meet R. J. Ellory here at BookPeople when MysteryPeople hosts him on Friday, January 27, 7p to speak & sign A Quiet Vendetta. We’ll have drinks, snacks, and a performance by Ellory himself.